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Aadhaar: When the Poor Get Left Out

An operator helps an elderly woman scan her fingerprints as she enrolls for Aadhar, Indiaââ¬â¢s unique identification project in Kolkata, India, Wednesday, May 16, 2012. The giant identification project which aims to give everyone an identity record and number for the first time involves recording retina scans, fingerprints and photographs of all 1.2 billion Indians. (AP Photo/Bikas Das) | Photo Credit: Bikas Das

Aadhaar’s principal goals were to end fraud and reach welfare to the poorest. But in practice it has achieved neither. The claimed elimination of bogus cards has been found to be exaggerated. On the other hand, the insistence on the Aadhaar card has led to the brutal exclusion from welfare of the very poor and the homeless — for reasons such as not being on the Aadhaar data base, not having a fixed address and failing the biometric identification test. Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri, Right to Food activists, point out why the Aadhaar initiative is not only ill-suited to prevent corruption but could also rob the needy of their basic state support.

As the Aadhaar matter comes up in the Supreme Court, it is perhaps a good time to assess how far the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the statutory authority established under the provisions of the Aadhaar Act, 2016, has been successful in meeting the objectives which it set out to achieve.

Twin objectives

The UIDAI Strategy Overview 1 states, “ In India, an inability to prove identity is one of the biggest barriers preventing the poor from accessing benefits and subsidies…A clear identity number would transform the delivery of social welfare programs by making them more inclusive of communities now cut off from such benefits due to their lack of identification.” It goes on to state, “A single, universal identity number will also be transformational in eliminating fraud...

The two primary objectives of Aadhaar, therefore were to rid the system of corruption, and to give every citizen of India a proof of identity – something many poor and marginalized in the country lacked.

Fighting corruption?

When the Narendra Modi government came to power riding on the promise of fighting corruption and ensuring effective service delivery, it was assumed that the government will put in place a strong anti-corruption and grievance redress framework to ensure that no one is denied their rightful entitlements.

Over the last three and a half years, however, anti-corruption legislation, like the Lokpal 2 and Whistleblowers Protection Act 3 , have not been implemented. The government has not re-introduced the Grievance Redress Bill of 2011 4 , which had the potential to empower people to fight corruption in delivery of services but had lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 2014. The social audit and grievance redress provisions in various laws like the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 5 , also continue to languish.

Instead, the government has been pushing Aadhaar as the definitive solution to the problem of corruption. This is inexplicable as Aadhaar can, at best, tackle only identity fraud, where an individual colludes with the system to be included multiple times in the list of beneficiaries. This accounts for a very small proportion of corruption. In programmes like the Public Distribution System (PDS), the major reason for corruption is quantity and quality fraud with ration shopkeepers refusing to give people their full share of rations or pilfering good quality foodgrains and replacing them with poor quality, rotten stock. This is possible only when the different wings of the supervisory structure collude -- the food inspectors look away, supply officers give clean chits and the vigilance machinery turns a blind eye. Aadhaar can do nothing to tackle this corruption, which can only be eradicated through greater transparency and by putting in place effective accountability mechanisms.

Effective proactive disclosure of information in local language through public boards giving information like the list of beneficiaries, stock and sale details would empower people with information to hold the system accountable. Studies 6 on the functioning of the PDS have shown that corruption has been greatly curtailed in States where transparency has been enhanced and time-bound, decentralised mechanisms for redressing grievances have been adopted.

In fact, experience suggests that the introduction of Aadhaar, especially the Point of Sale (PoS) device, has made the PDS dealer and state machinery even more powerful vis-à-vis the beneficiary. The identification procedure has left people at the mercy of the ration shop dealers and middlemen as the asymmetry of information has increased in terms of the rules related to Aadhaar and biometric authentication at the point of delivery. If the dealer says the machine is not reading fingerprints or the biometrics are not matching or cites software/connectivity problems to deny ration, the beneficiary has no way to meaningfully engage or question the claims. This is especially true for the unlettered and those who are not digitally literate.

Savings: Myth vs reality

On February 7, 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a statement 7 in Parliament that using Aadhaar and technology, his government, in two and a half years, had discovered “nearly 4 crore, meaning 3.95 crore bogus ration cards” which resulted in savings of about Rs. 14,000 crore rupees. The PM, however, did not provide any details of cardholders who were found to be “bogus”. An RTI query 8 filed to the PMO seeking State-wise break up of bogus cards and the names of bogus card holders revealed that there was no evidence to back the claims made by the PM.

The PM’s speech was subsequently corrected to state, “nearly 4 crore, meaning 2.33 crore bogus ration cards were found” 9 , presumably to align his original figure with information provided by the Union Minister of for Food, Ram Vilas Paswan, in response 10 to a Parliamentary question seeking a State-wise break-up of bogus ration cards. The State-wise figures provided by the Minister, however, also did not match with the figures disclosed by various States under the RTI Act (See table).

For instance, for Odisha while the Minister quoted a figure of more than 7 lakh bogus ration cards, under the RTI Act the State Food Department replied that there were no bogus ration cards in the State 11 . Similarly, for Jharkhand, the Minister quoted a figure of almost 8,000 bogus ration cards, while the Department concerned, in response to an RTI application, held that “this information is not available in the department” 12 .

Interestingly, while waxing eloquent about using Aadhaar to fight corruption by cancelling so-called bogus cards of people, the PM was silent on whether action was taken against corrupt officials who were responsible for making the bogus ration cards — after all bogus cards cannot be made without the collusion of officials.

In a similar case, claims about fake job cards detected in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) due to Aadhaar failed to hold up to scrutiny. Government officials reportedly 13 stated that one crore “fake” job cards had been found during the process of cleaning up, including by seeding with Aadhaar. Information received in response to an RTI application showed that of the 94 lakh deletions in 2016-17, so-called “fake” and “duplicate” job cards accounted for less than 13 per cent or about 12 lakh job cards 14 . Other deletions were on account of reasons like a change in address, mistakes on job cards and people who wanted to surrender their job card.

Providing proof of identity

A citizen can apply for an Aadhaar card, either by producing an existing identity proof and address proof or by being ‘introduced’ through a pre-designated introducer 15 .

An application under the RTI Act filed to the UIDAI 16 , showed that till October 2016, when over 105 crore residents had enrolled, only 8,47,366 — or 0.08 per cent — enrolled for Aadhaar through the “introducer system.” Over 99.9 per cent had to show existing identity/address proof to obtain an Aadhaar.

Experience in Delhi and other States has shown that it is virtually impossible for marginalised groups like the homeless to get an Aadhar number. Enrolment centres routinely demand identity and address proof, even in cases where with great difficulty “introducers” come forward to help. Taking note of this conundrum visible in a petition regarding the condition of the homeless, the Supreme Court recently enquired how the homeless were expected to get Aadhaar cards since they do not have any address. The judges were especially vexed when it came to light that in Uttar Pradesh, the homeless needed to furnish their Aadhaar number in order to access night shelters. As per the 2011 census, there are close to 18 lakh homeless in the country.

Mandatory link and exclusions

Aadhaar, which was touted as a pro-poor initiative for ensuring greater inclusion of the poor, has proved to be anything but.

There is sufficient evidence – from States like Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Delhi --to show that the mandatory linking of Aadhaar has led to large scale exclusions of the poor from benefits guaranteed under the NFSA.

Those who are not enrolled on the Aadhaar database are unable to apply for accessing entitlements. In Delhi, when ration cards were being issued in 2013, Aadhaar was made mandatory not just for the head of the household but for each person who wanted to be listed on a ration card 17 . This led to massive exclusion of the poor and marginalised. Families where no one was enrolled in Aadhaar, could not apply. Similarly, individuals who had not enrolled for Aadhaar were not included in their family ration cards and were hence unable to access their entitlements of ration (under the NFSA, 5 kg of subsidised foodgrains has to be provided for each beneficiary listed on the priority ration card). This was despite the fact that the Supreme Court 18 in several orders had directed that no one should be refused benefits for want of Aadhaar. The irony is that even after people enrolled for Aadhaar, they could not be provided subsidised grains under the NFSA as by then the ‘quota’ i.e. the number of people to be covered under the Act, had been exhausted! The exclusions were confirmed by the local commissioner appointed by the Delhi High Court while hearing a case related to exclusions due to Aadhaar 19 .

Merely possessing an Aadhaar card, however, is also not adequate. There are atleast two other types of exclusions. Even if someone has enrolled for Aadhaar but it is not “linked” to their ration card, they are denied their legal entitlements. Again, if ABBA fails, people cannot secure their rights.

In September 2017, 11-year old Santoshi, a resident of Simdega district of Jharkhand, died of starvation. Her family stopped receiving ration under the NFSA in February 2017 as their ration card was not linked to Aadhaar. Despite repeated complaints, there was no redress. According to her mother, Santoshi died “asking for rice, but there was not a single grain at home”. Following her death, the Food Minister of Jharkhand admitted that the government’s “no aadhaar, no ration policy” was flawed and had led to exclusions of the most vulnerable 20 .

Marandi in Jharkhand met the same fate — he could not get his share of ration supplies as his ABBA had failed. Similar cases of starvation deaths have been reported from other States too, among them Shakina Ashfaq from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, who had starved because she could not present herself at the ration shop for ABBA due to ill health.

Findings from a field study in Jharkhand indicated quantity fraud, high transaction costs and hardship as well as outright exclusion of the most vulnerable since the introduction of ABBA 21 .

Similarly, data available on the website of the Department of Food, Rajasthan shows that between September 2016 and July 2017, after Aadhaar based biometric authentication was made mandatory in the State, 25 per cent to 33 per cent of ration card holders did not get their rations. That amounts to more than 25 lakh families, or more than a crore of the most vulnerable people.

Despite mounting evidence of exclusions and their devastating impact on the poorest, the government has been brazenly labelling those who are excluded due to Aadhaar as “bogus”, proudly claiming as “savings” the funds saved from denying basic services to the most needy and vulnerable.

The adverse impact on the poor together with privacy concerns associated with Aadhaar, as demonstrated by the recent incidents of data breaches, clearly illustrate that the costs associated with Aadhaar far outweigh its benefits. It is clearly imperative to fundamentally rethink Aadhaar.


Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri work on issues related to transparency, accountability and right to food.


[All URLs were last accessed on January 17, 2018]

1. Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) Planning Commission, Govt. of India, 2010 . “ UIDAI Strategy Overview “, April. Return to Text.

2. The Gazette of India . “ The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 “, Ministry of Law and Justice .Return to Text.

3. The Gazette of India . “ The Whistle Blowers Protection Act, 2011 “, Ministry of Law and Justice .Return to Text.

4. The Grievance Redress bill of 2011 . []. Return to Text.

5. Supreme Court Judgement Swaraj Abhiyan National Food Security Act (NFSA) [] & Supreme Court Judgement Swaraj Abhiyan NFSA- 9 Aug extending to all states.[]. Return to Text.

6. Dreze, J. and Khera, R. 2015 . “ Understanding Leakages in the Public Distribution System “, Economic and Political Weekly , February 14, Vol. 50, Issue No. 7. []. Return to Text.

7., 2017. “ Narendra Modi’s latest speech in Lok Sabha, Great Indian Politics “, February 7. [] (1:09:15). Return to Text.

8. Bhardwaj, A. 2017 . “ Online RTI Request Form Details “. []. Return to Text.

9. Prime Minister Speech Lok Sabha, February 2017 bogus cards (P- 172 ) - official debate. [] (Page 172). Return to Text.

10. Government of India, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, Department of Food and Public Distribution. 2016. “ Lok Sabha starred question No.93: Computerisation of PDS “,November 22. []. Return to Text.

11. Supply of Information under RTI Act - Government of Odisha, Food Supplies and Consumer Welfare Department reply . []. Return to Text.

12. Supply of Information under RTI Act - Government of Jharkhand, Food Supplies and Consumer Welfare Department reply . []. Return to Text.

13. Chatterji, S. 2017 . “ Fund leakage: Nearly a crore fake ‘job cards’ struck off from MGNREGA scheme “, Hindustan Times, April 9. []. Return to Text.

14. Government of India, Ministry of Rural Development, Deparment of Rurual Development (MGNREGA Divistion) - Jean Dreze, reply . []. Return to Text.

15. The Gazette of India Extraordinary, Part III - Section 4 , September 14, 2016. []. Return to Text.

16. Governement of India, UIDAI-RTI reply . []. Return to Text.

17. See Point 1(xi), Point 1(xii) & Point 9 (i) of Guidelines. []. Return to Text.

18. See directions of the Supreme Court, of 24th of March 2014, in Crl No(s).2524/2014 & order dated 23.9.2013 in W.P. (Civil) No. 494/2012. Return to Text.

19. Report of the Local Commissioner Persuant to order. Return to Text.

20. Mukesh, A.S.R.P. 2017 . “ Girl death corners govt “, The Telegraph , December 12. []. Return to Text.

21. Dreze, J. et al. 2017. “Aadhaar and Food Security in Jharkhand: Pain without Gain?”, Economic & Political Weekly , December 16. Vol. LII, No. 50. Return to Text.

About the Authors:

Anjali Bhardwaj is a Co-convenor of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI). She is a founding member of Satark Nagrik Sangathan and is a member of the steering committee of the Right to Food Campaign in India. She is also associated with the Rethink Aadhaar campaign. Anjali has authored various reports and articles on issues of transparency and accountability. She holds an MSc degree from the University of Oxford. Email: [email protected]

Amrita Johri has been working with Satark Nagrik Sangathan since 2007 and is a member of the working committee of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI). Amrita is a member of the Right to Food Campaign in India and is associated with the Rethink Aadhaar campaign. She has co-authored various reports and articles on issues of transparency, accountability and grievance redress in India. Amrita did her Masters in Social Policy from the London School of Economics.

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